Ship Island Features History And Recreation

Ship Island is rich with history. The barrier island offered a deep water port for early French explorers. It also served as a prisoner camp during the civil war.

The lighthouse and Ft. Massachusetts are the most visible reminders of island's past. But there's much more to Ship Island's history than those two familiar landmarks.

For instance, the federal government once used the barrier island as a disease barrier, trying to keep yellow fever and other disease from coming ashore.

The newest Ship Island lighthouse is barely four years old. Gulfport Seabees built the structure after a group of supporters raised money to pay for the project. A pile of bricks and iron near the new lighthouse points to the past. The remnants recall the earliest days of the island lighthouse.

A 45-foot brick light station was used in 1853. It stayed in operation until the new Ship Island lighthouse was built in 1886. Early photographs showed the keeper's quarters, along with a wharf and cistern. Various updated versions of the original lighthouse stood tall through more than a century of storms.

"Built in 1886 originally. Survived Hurricane Camille. The only wooden structure south of Highway 90 to survive Hurricane Camille. Of course it didn't survive the vandals burning it down in '72. Fortunately, the friends of Gulf Islands National Seashore came together and rebuilt it," explained Captain Louis Skrmetta of Ship Island Excursions.

"So this is the third system. This is what he had installed. They're coastline fortifications," explained a college student tour guide at Fort Massachusetts.

The brick fortress called Fort Massachusetts remains an enduring symbol of island history. Its construction followed the War of 1812. Jefferson Davis was then Secretary of War under the Franklin Pierce administration.

It was 1855 when he recommended an appropriation to "commence the fortification of Ship Island." An Italian architect, educated at West Point, designed the impressive structure, which proved most challenging to construct.

"The manpower it would take to build this. There's not one flat surface. Everything is arches. Which means that each brick has to be hand sanded. Also you have to get the granite upstairs to mount the cannons. It took a lot of manpower to create the fort," said tour guide, Lara Moore.

An undated photograph from the Gulf Islands collection shows the mounting of the massive cannon atop the fort.

"The hot shot furnace would heat up cannon balls. And you would shoot them at ships and the ships were made of wood, so you could burn them down," said Moore.

Civil War days saw the Fort serving as a prisoner of war camp. African-American members of the Louisiana Native Guards were a part of the Federal garrison which controlled the island. They helped oversee the hundreds of Confederates and renegade Federal soldiers kept confined in a wooden stockade outside the fort.

These days, erosion is the fort's entrenched enemy. In recent years, sand was pumped along the northside of the island to shore up the thin barrier which protects the fort from the advancing sea.

"It's been through about 30 hurricanes. Hurricane Camille being the most infamous. It split the island in half. But the fort stayed," said Moore.

Many folks are familiar with Fort Massachusetts and the evolution of the lighthouse. But did you know that Ship Island was home to the nation's first quarantine station? It happened here in the mid to late 1870's.

Pictures from that period show the yellow fever hospital and executive offices. The mission of the nation's first quarantine station was to "diminish the danger of the importation of infectious and epidemic diseases by detaining vessels and checking cargo and passengers."

Well over a century later, the intrigue of Ship Island history continues to lure and impress island visitors.